Pomona College has recently encountered criticism from the other colleges’ students for its “ridiculous degree of political correctness,” as I overheard in a passing conversation. I think it is time to consider the question: when does political correctness go too far; when does it obstruct enriching conversation and debate, and when does it lacerate the educational potential of a conversation? Tania Gray PO ’19 provided an example of the latter situation from one of her classes at Pomona, in which the professor asked the class to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement. After a period of extended silence, a fellow student told the professor that there wouldn’t be an extensive discussion on the issue because nobody would speak up out of fear of being offensive. This is a perfect example of how wanting to be politically correct can inhibit a potentially enlightening discussion.
5C students come from very different and diverse backgrounds. Some grew up in homogeneous environments where diversity and consideration of other groups wasn’t a major concerns. For example, my school in Germany was very homogeneous, meaning that social issues were not an extensive topic of debate. Thus, jokes containing notions of racism, sexism, and mental health issues were a normalized part of daily conversation. At Pomona, this is not at all the case. Making such a joke quickly results in being called out— regardless of whether the intention behind it was to offend somebody or not. As a result, students from less diverse high schools often report a fear of being called out and a preference for holding the middle ground just to be safe and avoid expressing a view that is perceived as extreme.
A factor in this is the fear of being reprimanded and called out. Where this fear originates is, of course, different for everyone, but some common factors include fear of social alienation and being labeled as racist or sexist in a public setting. Menbers of on-campus groups like International Student Mentor Program (ISMP) are often quick to reprimand other students for errors in political correctness, which often results in the recipient taking offense, cutting the conversation short. Whilst taking offense is a defense mechanism in a conversation that should be avoided, we should also consider the other side–the reprimanding party. We should be aware that some students are not used to interacting with minority groups, and should thus keep our 'calling out' as far away from judgment as possible. Instead, we should strive for constructive criticism.
Political correctness cannot be stamped with a straightforward moral judgment of 'good' or 'bad.' Its appropriateness is dependent on situational factors and circumstances; it can be both harmful and beneficial. A trademark of harmful political correctness is that it tends to be judgmental rather than instructive.
Political correctness frequently hinders discourse in sensitive areas, such as conversations related to mental health. I am guilty of this myself as I can often get quite hotheaded when people joke about this topic, like claiming that they want to kill themselves when their homework is too difficult. As suicide was common in the middle school I attended in Australia, I am very sensitive to this issue and judge people for not acknowledging what it actually feels like to want to end your own life. The intensity of my reprimand puts people off because “that escalated way too quickly!” and leads to a complete change in subject, rather than fostering a constructive discourse about mental health.
While the culture of political correctness is intended to be constructive, it sometimes becomes destructive, offering a mask for people to hide behind when they are uninformed about a topic and don’t want others to know. If something personally offends you, informing the other party of this is the right thing to do. But if you call someone out only because your learned the concept was wrong, this can be very problematic, teaching the person who was called out to conform to social standards more because they learned that being politically correct is simply the thing to do at Pomona. One student I talked to described this phenomenon as an “echo chamber” and said that we are only politically correct to make ourselves feel better about our social standing. This is the prime indication that political correctness has gone too far.
Laura Haetzel PO '19 intends to major in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry.